Radioactive Man

It’s 2006 and nuclear energy and the 80’s are currently sharing the comeback pedestal. You either hate the 80’s (although that decade did churn out some cool cartoons), or you don’t, and for the most part, that can be said about nuclear energy as well. However, one has the option of essentially forgetting that the 80’s ever happened and can easily dispose of those WHAM! cassettes using creative and often fun methods. Nuclear waste, well, that stuff tends to hang around a bit longer.

The sludge that flows down the heavily armored pipe into Sellafield’s vitrification plant after plutonium and uranium have been taken from spent fuel rods for reuse is a hell’s brew still emitting 40 times a lethal dose of radiation.

In shielded chambers with technicians watching through yard-thick leaded glass windows and using remote mechanical arms, the toxic stew is cooked down to a powder, combined with molten glass and poured into stainless steel urns.

These are cooled, closed and scrubbed before being sealed in insulated steel flasks and taken away for storage where, standing 10 deep in a concrete core and capped by a 10-footplug, the heat from the radiation is still tangible.

There are nearly 4,000 of these containers stored at Sellafield, which was the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant when it opened in 1956, with room for 4,000 more.

Final disposal of the waste involves burying it in geologically stable formations. The half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years — in other words, it would take up to 250,000 years before it degrades completely.

Chilton said waste comes from Britain, which has 11 nuclear plants, and from countries as far away as Japan, the third biggest nuclear power user after the United States and France.

Naturally, using my plutonic senses, I’ll relate this to China.

Energy strapped (and polluted) China is embarking on a massive program to enlarge its nuclear power capacity. Plans are in motion to construct 30 new nuclear power generation stations before 2020, powering up the nuclear’s share to 6% of total installed capacity. Nuclear power currently account for about 2% of total generated power. Taken as a straight percentage, 6% doesn’t not appear to be a large number (nuclear provides France with almost 80% of its electricity) but compare it to an equivalent coal estimate and the number is quite impressive.

“if achievement of the above goal relies entirely on coal, then it is necessary to add 1.2 billion tons of coal as the driving power, this will bring unbearable burden on resources, mining, transportation and the environment. Tang Zide, a staff member with the Main Projects Inspection Office of National Development and Reform Commission, (formerly he was a senior engineer at the Nuclear Power Office of the State Council), said that electricity shortage and the singleness of power structure become the direct motivating power for starting China’s nuclear power construction.

Coal is a nasty and dirty power source. A group of coal power engineers I teach at my school have been providing me with the low down on the coal power generation. The most startling tidbit of information was that upwards of 90% of coal residuals (ash) is expelled into the atmosphere while the remaining 10% (larger particulate matter) is collected and used in road construction. Scubbers are present in new plants to assist in the removal of S02 and other gases, yet a large number of Chinese coal facilities lack these measures. I don’t feel like I need to enter into the numerous negative impacts of such emissions.

Coal is obviously bad, but where is the waste for 30 nuclear power plants going to go? If all stations are completed and online in 2020, China will be creating over 1000 metric tonnes a year, and every year after.

Gulag country, of course! A low population combined with a harshly dry climate create a perfect conditions for permanent storage. There currently 7 sites for waste disposal, with the majority located in the western regions, including facilities near Wulumqi (Urumqi), the Gobi desert, Lop Nor (nuclear weapons testing grounds in Qinghai) and Sichuan. Contrary to other views I’ve hold about the Chinese government and their honesty and transparency (or lack of) in regards to environmental issues, I suspect that given the high public profile and internationalization of their nuclear power build up scheme that these facilities are probably on par with other nuclear nations disposal locations.

I don’t view nuclear power as a solution, but I think it is definitely a viable component of a diversified energy scheme, especially as a source of electricity for electrolysis and the possible hydrogen economy. The problem lies in the legacy of radioactive waste. I once had a seminar class at UVic where we discussed how to effectively and sustainably landmark a radioactive disposal site for 25,000 years and warn possible future generations or extra-terrestrial visitors of the danger. Of course, nobody had the faintest idea.

2 Responses to Radioactive Man

  1. lurking_administrator says:

    I think it’s very important to find out a proper way to dispose the nuclear waste. Otherwise with the fast development and increasing use of nuclear power, can’t imagine how it will be in the future. Gene mutant! But apparently spending a lot of money on disposal research is much less profitable than developing nuclear power. Nevertheless, in the long run the promotion of sustainable development is considered to be much more reasonable for the well being of the present and future generations. So what I want to say here is that guys who dreamt of being garbage men in an early age are so incredible! I respect them because they had got the sustainability point of view long before we even realized it!!!

  2. Bryan says:

    Garbage men are a fine and noble breed 😉

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